What Needs to Happen for New England Patriots to Have AFC East's Best Defense

Oliver Thomas@OliverBThomasContributor IJuly 11, 2012

What Needs to Happen for New England Patriots to Have AFC East's Best Defense

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    The New England Patriots managed to punch a ticket to Super Bowl XLVI, despite having the 31st ranked defense in the NFL. Other AFC East teams fared better on the defensive side of the ball, but no divisional foe clinched a playoff birth in 2011.

    In order for the Patriots' D to become the best in the AFC East next season, improvements must be made on the line of scrimmage up through the secondary.

    Unfortunately, history shows that this will not come easy.

    New England's defense hasn't ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed since 2008, according to NFL.com data.

    For years, the Pats have been carried by the offense. The key to a thriving offense is a stalwart defense.

    To be the most potent defense in the division, the following plans must come to fruition for the Patriots in 2012.

A Frontrunner Must Emerge for the Elephant Position

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    Head coach Bill Belichick has utilized the Elephant position in years past to get the most out of his versatile pass rushers. This keeps an athletic big man on the field, whether or not the defense is in a 4-3 or 3-4 front seven.

    The Elephant position has been manned by the likes of Willie McGinest, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson. Though with McGinest long into retirement, Andre Carter a free agent and Mark Anderson gone via free agency, who will step up?

    The Patriots drafted two potential suitors for the spot: Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette.

    Jones, one of New England's 2012 first-round picks, fits the mold for the job. At 6'5", 260 pounds, height and quickness are on the Syracuse Orangeman's side. At Syracuse, Jones never amassed more than 4.5 sacks in one season. Yet his raw talent could help him make his presence felt early on.

    Bequette, the Patriots' third-round choice this year, is another youngster who could blossom under the Elephant's responsibilities. Standing at 6'5" with 265 pounds of bulk, Bequette was a sack machine at Arkansas. He totaled 17 sacks during his junior and senior seasons with the Razorbacks.

    In April, the Boston Globe's Greg A. Bedard assessed how Bequette stacks up against Jones for filling the Elephant role:

    He stood up at times at Arkansas so he would seem a natural for the DE/OLB hybrid Elephant position for the Patriots. Considering his experience and pro-ready body, it wouldn’t surprise if he contributes more before than 21st overall pick Chandler Jones – if they play the same position.

    If the greenhorns can make a play for the Elephant's responsibilities, it would ensure continuity not only for 2012, but for years to come.

    That said, Andre Carter could still be in the fold after recuperating from quad surgery, reports ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss.

    In addition, the newly-acquired Trevor Scott could also be in the running for the Elephant, as he has experience at both linebacker and defensive end, cites the Globe's Bedard.

    New England's defense needs a guy who can stand up on running downs and stick his hand in the ground on passing downs. As long as one of these players can establish themselves in the Elephant, the Patriots will be able to confuse offenses and put quarterbacks under duress. 

Brandon Spikes Must Continue to Play at a High Level

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    Brandon Spikes has been limited to 20 games in his first two NFL seasons due to injury and suspension. However, the 2010 second-round selection put it all behind him during the last season's playoff run.

    In three postseason games, the ex-Florida Gator rose to the occasion. Spikes made 26 combined tackles, one quarterback sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and he notched the team's only interception.

    This knack for the football re-installed life into a stagnant defense and helped the Pats strive all the way to the Super Bowl. If Spikes can keep his momentum rolling into the 2012 regular season, the defense will be in great shape.

    The Boston Herald's Jeff Howe, formerly of NESN, analyzed the 24-year-old thumper:

    Spikes was so good in the playoffs that it actually became surprising when he was out of position or got blocked out of a gap. It might take another season or two before he becomes a complete linebacker who can contribute in the passing game, too, but he's got serious playmaking ability and can be a cornerstone of the defense if he stays on the field. The impressive thing is Spikes gets better on a game-by-game basis, so his potential over a full 16-game season could be tremendous.

    Consistency and progression will be crucial for Spikes. In his career, he's totaled 108 regular-season tackles.

    Aside from his recent playoff output, big plays have been few and far between. But when Spikes is on his game, the Patriots have a hard-nosed inside linebacker on their hands, next to 2010 Pro Bowl selection Jerod Mayo.

Dont'a Hightower Has to Separate from the Pack

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    The Patriots thought very highly of Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower and traded up in the first round of this year's draft to nab him. The 6'4", 270-pound tackler should pay dividends down the road for New England.

    In order to make an early impact, however, Hightower must find his niche in New England's sub-heavy defense.

    In an ESPN Boston piece published in June, Mike Rodak found the linebacker battle to be close and intriguing to watch:

    When the Patriots put the pads on for training camp in six weeks, the use of sub packages may dip as the running game becomes more of a factor in practice. But with only two linebackers likely on the field in the team’s normal 4-2-5 nickel defense, which two players get the nod? Mayo, a defensive captain, should stick. That leaves Hightower and Carpenter in a battle this summer for the other sub 'backer position and a significant role within the defense. 

    Bobby Carpenter, a 2006 first-round pick, may have finally found a home with the Patriots. Still, in the best interest of the future and present, Coach Belichick and Co. should hope that Hightower takes the reigns in sub linebacker duties.

    New England made an investment with Hightower. Carpenter, on the other hand, was more of a low-risk signing who adds depth to the linebacker corps.

    According to ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss, the Pats were in a sub defense 63.2 percent of snaps last season. In 2010, the defense lined up in a sub formation 57 percent of the time. With the trend expected to continue in 2012, the linebacker position will be in flux more than ever.

    Ultimately, Hightower's high football I.Q. and special talent isn't meant for the sidelines. The more plays the scheme-savvy linebacker can be involved in, the better the outcome will be for the Patriots' defense.

Better Coverage from the Cornerback Crew

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    New England's cornerbacks struggled in coverage in 2011.

    Starters Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington combined for nine interceptions last season. Unfortunately, their picks were swept under the rug after allowing a slew of big plays to wide receivers.

    According to Stats LLC (via ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley), McCourty and Arrington conceived a total of 1,942 pass yards and 11 touchdowns. That has to be fixed. Otherwise, wideouts will have a field day against the Patriots in 2012.

    There is reason for hope, however. The Pats' roster has its share of corners with high ceilings if McCourty and Arrington continue to give up significant yardage.

    ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reports that second-year man Ras-I Dowling is back and healthy after missing all but two games last year. Dowling was a second-rounder out of Virginia and at 6'1", 210 pounds, he is a big and physical defensive back.

    Behind Dowling is Sterling Moore, who picked off two passes against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 of last season and made a game-saving breakup against Baltimore Ravens' Lee Evans in the AFC Championship Game.

    Other notables at the position are highly valued, 2012 seventh-round draft choice Alfonzo Dennard and seasoned vet Will Allen—both of whom could be of great service in nickel and dime packages for New England.

    The defensive front can pressure the quarterback all it wants, but everything comes down to the cornerbacks to keep the passing game in check.

    If these men can hone in their budding abilities, the Patriots defense could enjoy a turnaround season in 2012.

A Clean Bill of Health for Patrick Chung

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    Patriots' safety Patrick Chung is a vital cog in the defensive backfield.

    The 2009 second-round draft pick has accumulated 195 combined tackles, three sacks and five interceptions in his first three professional seasons.

    He's proficient when he's on the field, but the former Oregon Duck has a medical history. In 2011, Chung missed eight games due to injury. The previous season, the 24-year-old sat out another two contests.

    If New England's defense makes headway in 2012, it will likely be because No. 25 stays healthy. When he's not on the injury report, Chung is a leader in the secondary and is polished enough to play both free and strong safety.

    Coach Belichick explained to WEEI's Christopher Price what makes Chung such an asset for the Pats defense:

    “Patrick brings a good level of experience. He’s been through a lot in terms of all our calls and adjustments,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “Patrick is a smart guy. He understands concepts, he’s well prepared and he had a good level of experience. He’s been out there in all situations: first down, second down, third down, fourth down. He takes that experience to all those situations and he’s got good confidence.”

    The Patriots have some other help at safety with ex-San Diego Charger Steve Gregory, 2012 second-round pick Tavon Wilson and the recently re-signed James Ihedigbo.

    Nevertheless, Chung is what keeps the wheels turning on the back end of the defense.